WEST ORANGE, NJ — The future of what remains of the former St. Mark’s Episcopal Church building — the 188-year-old historic site that was severely damaged by a fire of undetermined cause on New Year’s Day — remains in doubt as township business Administrator Jack Sayers informed the West Orange Township Council during its Jan. 5 meeting that the property’s owner has until late January to stabilize the structure in accordance with the notice of unsafe structure the building received Jan. 4.
Speaking with the West Orange Chronicle in a Jan. 8 phone interview, Sayers specified that the International Federation of Chaplains, which had purchased St. Mark’s in March 2015 for the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal Church to use, has until Jan. 19 to stabilize the structure or else face legal action. During the meeting itself, Sayers said that he and township construction official Tom Tracey also met with federation representatives to lay out a timeframe for what the township expects the federation to accomplish moving forward. Sayers said the federation has until February to meet with architects and its insurance provider and let the township know what it plans to demolish or restore the property.
And restoring the building is indeed a possibility — Sayers said the federation has expressed a desire to save the building, while the township will “do as much as we can to get them to hopefully refurbish the building.” But at the end of the day, he said, the fate of the building might lie in just how much the refurbishment will cost.
“There’s a lot of money that’s going to have to go back into that building,” Sayers said at the meeting. “I think it’s going to come down to money, unfortunately.”
Yet it was evident during the public’s time to address the council that many within the historical and architectural communities would be deeply disappointed if the building is torn down.
Martin Feitlowitz and Gerald Gurland, both members of the West Orange Historic Preservation Commission, reminded the council that the property is still a designated historic site as listed on the national and New Jersey historic registers; therefore, any potential construction or demolition must be approved by the commission. And though he feels “totally devastated” by the church’s ruin, Feitlowitz said he still hopes West Orange will move carefully in deciding the building’s future.
“I urge the council and all township departments to be excessively diligent as the process of going forward evolves,” Feitlowitz said.
On the architectural front, American Institute of Architects-New Jersey President Justin Mihalik and AIA-NJ member Eli Goldstein — who cited St. Mark’s as an influence when he helped design the nearby West Orange Police Department building — urged the township to save what is left of the structure. In fact, Mihalik offered the AIA-NJ’s resources and expertise to the town to make sure the building is not completely lost.
“The church is a national treasure of incalculable historic significance,” Mihalik said. “We implore all those involved — the building’s current owners; the Town Council; and our municipal, state and national officials and representatives to do everything in their power to ensure that this tragedy is not compounded and that the remaining portions of the building are saved.”
Fellow AIA-NJ member Mark Alan Hewitt, who spoke on behalf of West Orange architect and vocal St. Mark’s restoration advocate Jerry Eben, also told the council that the AIA-NJ would be at its disposal to save the church, adding that the property owner should consider applying to the New Jersey Historic Trust for a stabilization loan as well. In the immediate future, Hewitt advised the owner to shore — or prop up — the building’s unbraced walls to prevent water from freezing inside the sandstone’s pores, which could cause the walls to crack and fall. Assistant township attorney Ken Kayser said he believes the federation is planning to shore the walls soon.
Above all, Hewitt said he hopes West Orange will save the church since it is one of the few examples of gothic architecture in the United States. Even though preserving the structure may seem like a lost cause, he pointed out that great things can come out of destruction when a community comes together.
“Chartres Cathedral, the most beautiful gothic cathedral I know of in the world, was built as a result of a devastating fire that destroyed the previous cathedral,” Hewitt said of the French church. “A relic of that building was preserved, and the public went out and found the money to build Chartres Cathedral. So I don’t think there’s anything stopping the public from rebuilding a beautiful church there again.”
The council seemed enthused about the possibility of restoring the church, especially with the AIA-NJ’s support. Councilman Jerry Guarino compared the St. Mark’s fire to losing a child, as the church was an icon of Main Street for nearly two centuries. Guarino said he looks forward to seeing the township, federation and architects unit to do whatever they can to save the structure.
But Downtown West Orange Alliance Executive Director Megan Brill said the community should be concerned about more than St. Mark’s. Following the fire, she said that she was disturbed to receive many complaints from residents upset about the church’s loss and angry at the Iglesia de Dios. To see so many people turn on one of its newest community members about a tragedy that hurts the congregation just as much as everyone else was disheartening, she said. That sadness turned to delight, however, when Dave Drill — the second-largest property owner on Main Street — told Brill that his family was intending to offer 80 Main St. to the Iglesia de Dios as a worship space.
Such generosity is the true spirit of West Orange, Brill said. She said it is also what people should keep in mind the next time they are tempted to point fingers. Instead of blaming the congregation, the executive director stressed, residents should consider what they can do to help a church in need.
“They don’t know us, and all they’ve really seen is lots of people yelling about windows and that we lost this church,” Brill said. “They’re going to need some hand-holding and encouragement. They are truly as devastated as we are. They were excited about being part of our downtown. They were excited to be in West Orange. And they don’t know what the future holds for them.”